Defusing the Gulf Crisis

Could a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar be on the cards?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Qatar may yet emerge as the biggest beneficiary of the crime of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The coalition opposed to it, led by Saudi Arabia, has been weakened to an unprecedented degree, and has begun to search for ways of resolving the year-old crisis in relations, which would entail lifting the blockade it has imposed on the emirate.

There are several important pointers that can be noted in this regard:

n First, reports by the Bloomberg new agency, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman’s favourite media outlet, that the Trump administration has been pressing Saudi Arabia to ease its political and economic siege of Qatar. Three administration sources were quoted as confirming this.

n Secondly, the notable reduction in attacks on Qatar in the Saudi and allied media, especially social media outlets. This follows Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman’s ‘flirtation’ with Qatar at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, where he praised the strength of the Qatari economy and predicted it would become even stronger over the next five years. That was a frank admission that the economic blockade has not achieved its aims, and has indeed backfired.

n Third, revelations by the Saudi dissident tweeter Mujtahid that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir sought to pay an impromptu visit to Doha. His plane was given permission to land, but he was not accorded any official welcome. A junior protocol official merely offered him coffee and bid him goodbye. According to Mujtahid, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, an advisor to the Saudi monarch and governor of the province of Mecca, also flew to Doha and asked for his visit to be kept secret. The Qatari authorities refused, and he flew back without disembarking from his plane.

We are personally acquainted with Mujtahid and familiar with his sources, and can confirm that his reports are mostly accurate. No denial was issued of his accounts of the attempts by Jubeir and al-Faisal to open a channel of dialogue with the Qatari authorities.

Qatar has taken advantage of Khashoggi’s murder to weaken its adversaries, both by employing its powerful media mouthpiece the Al Jazeera channel, and by strengthening its strategic alliance with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan  — who deployed 35,000 troops to the emirate to help protect it. It also appreciated the desperate need of the US for a strong and united Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to serve as the basis of the new strategic alliance — the so-called ‘Arab Nato’ – it wants to create to confront Iran. It plans to convene a summit in Washington in January for this purpose bringing together the six GCC countries plus Egypt and Jordan, and maybe Israel too. It would be difficult to launch this alliance while Qatar is engaged in a dispute with four of the other members (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain).

The Gulf crisis can only be resolved if concessions are made by all sides, including Qatar. The big question is whether it will accept its detractors’ principal demand, namely the closure of Al Jazeera.

This is unlikely. But the Qatar authorities could well provide assurances that the channel will tone down its criticism of Saudi Arabia, specifically, if a reconciliation deal between the two countries is in prospect.

There is no doubt that the Trump administration has powerful cards it can play to put pressure on its Gulf allies, including Qatar. The possibility of a reconciliation looks more realistic today that at any time in the past.